Day that left a bitter taste in the mouth Bitter taste that has lasted for 11 years
Friday 24 September 1999
The following day came sickness, diarrhoea, nausea, rashes and pins and needles. Then came forgetfulness, inability to read, painful joints, problems with balance and terrible clumsiness. And, finally, there was ridicule and disbelief aimed at 400 people whose lives had been turned upside-down by an appalling blunder with aluminium sulphate.
Up on Lowermoor on 6 July 1988, a relief lorry driver was delivering sulphate to a South West Water treatment works. Because of cutbacks it was deserted and, because of his inexperience, he unloaded his 20-ton cargo into the wrong tank. Within hours, the sulphate had turned to acid, coursing through the arterial water routes, stripping the pipes of other chemicals and delivering them to 20,000 customers.
South West Water staff were drafted in to flush the chemicals away while the population was told the water was safe to drink; no worse, the water company said, than drinking lemon juice. But it was.
"I remember I was drinking black coffee and it tasted odd, but my husband had milk in his, and it curdled," said Doreen Skudder, 71, who set up the Lowermoor Support Group after the incident. "We packed a picnic and took the dog along. At 11am we stopped for a drink and gave the dog some water and by 1pm the dog had the most violent diarrhoea."
By the next morning, Mrs Skudder's husband, Ivan, was feeling exhausted and both were feeling ill. Mrs Skudder ran a bath but her bubble-bath would produce no bubbles. She pulled out the plug and, within minutes, she developed a rash on her forearm where the water had been.
"I contacted South West Water," Mrs Skudder said. "They told me there had been some acidity, but the water was perfectly safe to drink."
In the years that followed, Mr Skudder, who had been a highly articulate banker, lost the ability to string sentences together; Mrs Skudder, an avid reader, could make no sense of more than five lines of text at a time. And neither could remember names or numbers. "I would be driving somewhere and then suddenly realise I didn't know what I was doing or why I was there," said Mrs Skudder. "My husband would fly into a rage with frustration because he could no longer express himself."
Anne Ahrens, 48, who has two children, gave up driving 18 months after the water was poisoned because she was no longer able to judge distances. Mrs Ahrens' husband, Clive, 60, had his own tills and scales business, but that suffered terribly. His joints became acutely painful and he would become confused over appointments with clients.
"Seven months after the incident, he went to St George's Hospital in London for a bone biopsy and they found a ring of aluminium like the rings you see in trees," said Mrs Ahrens. "Having that evidence was a comfort - proof that the pain was real - but hearing of this latest evidence is fantastic. We knew all along that we had been ill - your toenails don't drop out for nothing."
Most victims now report the worst symptoms are over, although some find their brainpower still diminished.
In 1991, South West Water was fined pounds 10,000 and ordered to pay pounds 25,000 costs for "causing public nuisance". Three years after that, about 180 victims, including the Ahrenses and Mrs Skudder, settled out of court for damages ranging from pounds 600 to pounds 11,000 but averaging only pounds 2,000 - little more than most had spent on bottled water.
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